Rant & Rave

By Stephanie Chang

Tuesday, October 5, 1999

‘Real’ Hawaii
never caught
on TV, film

LIKE many other kamaaina who straddle the globe, I exist with one foot in Hawaii and the other in New York. I have a dual identity, each influencing and complementing the other, and even creating something else entirely.

I understand the Hawaii codes of eating, gift giving, modesty and humor, but have adopted the codes of the mainland world of assertiveness, rigor and individualism. Returning to Hawaii brings a host of emotions to the surface and one thing is always certain: each time I return, I see Hawaii with new eyes.

While home recently, I reveled in Hawaii's uniqueness. Physical beauty certainly sets it apart from other places, but it is the local people who make Hawaii different.

"Local culture" is a concept my New York friends find hard to grasp. Local culture has never been portrayed successfully on TV or film. Portrayals of Hawaii are consistently inspired by mainland perceptions. Old classics such as "Waikiki," "South Pacific" and "Blue Hawaii" exaggerated Hawaiian culture, romanticizing and exoticizing the natural beauty and island customs so that those who watch have been inundated by visions of Hawaii as kitschy paradise.

WHILE TV shows such as "Hawaii 5-0" and "Magnum, P.I." went beyond portraying Hawaii's beauty, they cast local-born actors as background characters in supporting roles or as thugs and hustlers.

The movie "North Shore" and the TV series "Byrds of Paradise" did better, but for most of us, the lifestyles and characterizations were inflated and unbelievable. And while filmmakers now know better than to anger activists and college professors by delivering demeaning and inaccurate representations of Hawaii, films have also skirted local culture entirely, retreating to those beautiful landscape shots. This can be seen in films like "Outbreak," "Jurassic Park" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

MTV's "The Real World," filmed in Hawaii, was consistent with this pattern. Of course, the "volcano" outside the cast's plush Diamond Head house already told us one thing -- oh how unreal! More telling is the choice "Real World" executives made in selecting Ruthie to be in the show.

Ruthie, the one character from Hawaii, is no typical local girl. A girl who speaks with no obvious local accent, who doesn't care what others think of her, and who cares least about her responsibility to her family is a liberated girl for sure, but does not exemplify traits typical of local people.

LIKE the rest of the characters that MTV chose, Ruthie fits the "Real World" ideal of finding people who are fun, expressive and slightly troubled or neurotic. To have chosen a true local person might have upset the dynamic, challenged the others' values and probably been a little too real for MTV.

Also revealing was the way the others consumed Hawaii. Most treated Hawaii like a vacation spot without taking the time to understand and embrace local customs or local people with an open mind. The interaction with locals is one of condescension and power. But This is the real world, right?

It remains to be seen how Hawaii will be treated in the latest incarnation of "Baywatch."

Maybe we don't mind that the real Hawaii is never shown. Maybe it should stay a secret. It has always been true anyway that locals and part-time locals are the best bearers of local spirit by example, on the islands and off.

Stephanie Chang is a graduate of Punahou
and New York University, now working at the
New York Historical Society.

Rant & Rave is a Tuesday Star-Bulletin feature
allowing those 12 to 22 to serve up fresh perspectives.
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